Sleepless and sore, Rafael Nadal emerged back into the daylight yesterday to contemplate a tennis future that increasingly looks time-limited.
Parading the Australian Open trophy after his incredible victory over Daniil Medvedev, the 35-year-old Spaniard dropped more hints that he has a finite career in front of him.
This has become something of a recurring theme, and it appears that he is ready to adjust his schedule for this year accordingly.
Rafael Nadal won an epic Australian Open final over Daniil Medvedev in Melbourne on Sunday
A representative of Nadal’s team told Sportsmail that there may already be refinements to his programme in the wake of a physical effort on Sunday which the player said had left him ‘destroyed’.
According to his official sources it is not certain that, as advertised, he will play his next scheduled event, the ATP tournament in Acapulco in late February. Nor is he guaranteed to appear the Miami Open at the back end of March.
However, he does seem committed to feature at the Indian Wells Masters in California, starting on March 10. It appears there will be greater management of his physical resources going forward.
Asked yesterday about returning to Melbourne next year he responded: ‘I don’t know. I didn’t know I was able to play the Australian Open this year, and I don’t know what can happen in the future.
Nadal wasn’t even sure if he would be able to play at the Australian Open a month ago
‘I just want to enjoy the moment and keep going and try to enjoy this beautiful sport. I was not able to do it often these last two years, so I will love to try to play a bit more this year.
‘Today you never know what can happen. Of course I am proud. The personal satisfaction is higher than years ago. I think I just stay more in the moment without thinking so far in front.’
So clearly there are no promises, and it is instructive to look back at what he said on December 18 at the Mubadala exhibition event in Abu Dhabi. There he lost to both Andy Murray and Denis Shapovalov in what were his first competitive matches since early August.
It is obvious that the effects of the damaged bone in his left foot were causing him concern.
‘The idea is to go there and try my best in Australia. Being 100% honest, I can’t guarantee it,’ he said back then.
A damaged bone in his left foot ruled the Spaniard out for much of the 2021 tennis calendar
‘I need to speak with my team. I went through this process unfortunately a lot of times in my tennis career but I need to practice and I need to be healthy enough. If that happens, I’m confident that I will be back.’
Playing and winning the ‘250’ level tournament in Melbourne at the start of January was evidently the turning point.
It also helped that three of his first four matches at the Open were against players he could overwhelm. His fourth round opponent, Adrian Mannarino, was injured from his previous match.
What happens now in the Grand Slam race depends much on where and when Novak Djokovic is able to play.
Irrespective of that, it is also apparent how difficult it remains for the best young players to beat their illustrious elders in the Majors.
Daniil Medvedev is one of just two players to break the Big Three’s monopoly since 2016
Since 2016 there have been two new winners from outside the traditional ‘Big Three’, but both won their (US Open) finals in somewhat unusual circumstances.
In 2020 Dominic Thiem edged the final over Alex Zverev when Nadal was absent and Djokovic got himself freakishly defaulted in the fourth round.
Twelve months later in New York, Medvedev faced a strangely subdued Djokovic, who seemed overwhelmed and emotional in the face of completing the calendar year Grand Slam.
Stefanos Tsitsipas could not finish off the Serb from two sets up in the French Open final last year, and nor could Medvedev kill off Nadal from the same position on Sunday.
The Russian’s defeat has given Djokovic a stay of execution in the world number one slot. But unless the Serbian plays more than seems likely in the coming months Medvedev still has him within close range.
Novak Djokovic’s spot as world no 1 is at risk if he continues to miss out on playing at events
Yesterday’s new, post-Australian Open rankings showed few dramatic changes, although Emma Raducanu’s second round showing has bumped her up a surprising five spots to number 13, partly due to the drops of others.
Dan Evans, who tested positive for Covid for the second time in barely six months after Melbourne, is at an equal career high of 22.
Andy Murray’s Sydney final and second round in Melbourne see him up to 102. That will be enough for him to gain direct entry into the Grand Slams, but he will still need wildcards or to go through qualifying at main tour level events.